Not even Nicole Kidman's green jacket could save the new HBO series.
An emerald green coat rarely carries a show as heavy as an HBO drama, but Nicole Kidman's did so admirably in The Undoing.
Besides Kidman's definitively stunning costumes (that green coat deserves an Emmy), there were very few concrete takeaways from The Undoing, the new HBO limited series based on the book You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Still, it's worth noting that the show, which premiered October 25th to favorable reception, had a very promising start.
The green coat in question
Audiences are invited into the ritzy world of Jonathan and Grace Fraser (Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman), a wealthy Manhattan couple who seem to have something close to a perfect life. They share a bright and affectionate 12-year-old son, Henry, both work as doctors (Clare as a clinical psychologist and Jonathan as a pediatric oncologist), and seem to be genuinely enamored with each other.
But things begin to come undone (if you will) when Elena Alves, the mother of a scholarship student at Henry's prestigious school, joins Grace's group of parents to plan a charity event. The newcomer soon begins to fixate on Grace, even kissing her, much to Grace's fascination and bewilderment.
But things take a dark turn when Alves is found dead in her studio. We quickly learn that Jonathan is accused of the murder. He treated her son for cancer a year prior, soon beginning a romantic affair with Alves which persisted even after it caused him to lose his job. Even more damningly, the police conclude that the pair had sex the night Alves died, and Jonathan fled the city shortly after her body was discovered by her young son.
As each episode dropped weekly, the audience was left questioning who was truly behind the murder and just how guilty Jonathan was.
We see the majority of the world of the show through Grace's eyes. Kidman plays the role of the spinning, blindsided wife beautifully, staying just aloof enough to give the audience room to question her true motives.
The series shines brightest when it gives Kidman the reins, and Grace's waffling between love for her husband and disgust at his possible monstrosity should have been the heart of the series.
Instead, her inner turmoil is relegated to the background in favor of carefully orchestrated cliff-hangers, red herrings, and heavy-handed court scenes. The show's myriad sins could have been forgiven had it delivered the twist it seemed to promise from the beginning; but in the end, we find out that Jonathan murdered Elena precisely the way the police suspected he did.
While the ending is not in and of itself disappointing, it seems that the show we see in the first few episodes is not the same show by the finale. We're given so many little tidbits — from Grace's appearance on the security camera outside Elena's apartment to the nosy best friend who seems to have surely had an affair with Jonathan, from the omnipresence of Grace's absurdly wealthy father (played by Donald Sutherland) to Henry's concealed knowledge of his father's affair — that all seem to suggest there's more going on than what meets the eye.
Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) and her father (Donald Sutherland)
Of course, it's clear what the show is trying to say: "Look how far you'll go to excuse the guilt of a charming, wealthy, white man. Look! Even his wife didn't see him for what he was! Of course it was him. Why did you think it wasn't?!"
And, admittedly, Hugh Grant does some of his best acting to date in The Undoing. Jonathan is charming, funny, and warm, and Grant does an admirable job portraying a man who seems to genuinely believe he doesn't deserve the misfortune that's befallen him. But the show seems to assume that Grant will wrap the audience around his finger as easily as Jonathan does the characters in the show. In reality, after the first episode, there is very little to like about Grant's character.
It seems the producers of The Undoing were banking on winning the audience's allegiance with Grant's charming, crooked grin and the human tendency to equate moral goodness with wealth and education. To their credit, if one had started the finale of the show genuinely hoping that the Frasers would be reunited as a family, Jonathan's guilt would likely have come as a stirring surprise.
But in reality, people are much less sympathetic to lying, wealthy, white men than they once were. HBO underestimated their audience.
Whether a murderer or not, Jonathan is presented as a liar who took advantage of a young woman while her son had cancer. He then lies to his wife for months after losing his job, and initiates sex with her after (supposedly) seeing his lover dead on the floor. Still, it's obvious we were meant to root for him, but viewers were much less ready to forgive their favorite Knotting Hill actor for his more minor indiscretions than HBO apparently presumed. This viewer, for one, thought it was obvious from the start that Jonathan was guilty of the crime in question and even if he wasn't, Grace should leave her slimy husband behind.
Hugh Grant in "The Undoing" Finale
Additionally, the moral questions asked of the audience would have been much more provocative had the show not offered us so many viable other culprits or spent so much time trying to mislead us. If we had been allowed deeper into the inner workings of Grace's mind as she did the mental gymnastics of trying to acquit her husband, or even if we were shown more of Jonathan and Grace as a happy couple before the murder, then the revelation of Jonathan's guilt would likely have packed a bigger punch.
But perhaps the biggest miss on the show's part was the excellent characters it underutilized. Alves is played by the truly arresting Matilda De Angelis; and frankly, the show squandered her potential. Her character is presented as nothing more than an exotic, overly sensuous fascination — and then collateral damage — of a rich white couple. Her brief time on screen is spent naked, in partial undress, crying or screaming.
While the whole series is supposedly about Alves' murder, she still manages to be almost entirely irrelevant to the plot. The show even gives some credence to Jonathan's claims that she was something of a crazy stalker, not entirely implying that her death was her fault, but certainly letting audiences know that she wasn't completely blameless in bringing about her own murder.
We would be remiss not to also point out that a show about white people emotionally dealing with the murder of a woman of color, a woman who is never fully humanized on screen, feels more than a little regressive. Of course, part of the intended narrative is obviously a discussion of the power of white privilege in the justice system. Still, they could have at least bothered to give Elena a personality.
Summarily, while Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman brought considerable star power and admirable performances to the project, by the time the series finale wrapped up last night, this viewer couldn't help but feel like the gasp they were expecting from us was more of a quiet exhalation of disappointment.
Even that truly superb green coat couldn't resuscitate The Undoing.